Author Interview: Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror by Ryan Uytdewilligen

In the world of showbiz, it’s impossible for a performer to have completely perfect films on their resume. You think of any one of your favorites and there is bound to be an embarrassment of a flop.


Some definitely had more than others, and not even a cinema legend like John Wayne got away with not having a flop. In 1956, not only did a flop land on his filmography, but it would turn out to be one of the worst films of all time: The Conqueror.
Directed by Dick Powell for RKO Studios and starring Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendáriz, and John Wayne as Genghis Khan, the film was notorious for being awful at the time of release. In the years to come it gained a reputation for being both a disaster to watch and literally deadly to make; for it was filmed at nuclear test sites in Utah, resulting in a majority of the cast a crew dying from cancer.

65 years after the film’s release Canadian author Ryan Uytdewilligen has written a book: Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror. Mr Uytdewilligen has spent the last three years researching the subject, and was generous to let me ask him some questions! The book is available now from Rowman and Littlefield publishing, and can be purchased at places such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble.

Killing John Wayne: The Making of the Conqueror by Ryan Uytdewilligen

Below you find the email interview, which Ryan was so cool to take part in!

1-What personally interested you into writing a book about one of the worst films ever made?
The film’s history and place in the pantheon of worst films was told to me a few years back. It always stuck with me, particularly the crazy miscasting aspect I dug deeper and deeper over the years and found out that this movie had so many layers of destruction to it that It became so wild and unbelievable, I simply had to know more.

2-John Wayne usually lobbied hard for roles he truly wanted. How did John Wayne come to land the lead originally meant for Marlon Brando?
From what I could find, John Wayne wanted to try and shake up his image. He also signed a contract with Howard Hughes, promising he would do three films with RKO. He did the first two right away, but the third film took years to set up. He was desperate to take anything. The rumor is that after Brando turned down the script, it was thrown in the trash. Wayne apparently pulled it out of the trash bin, flipped through it, and said that should be the next film.

3- I have read on IMDB The Conqueror wiped out RKO Pictures; In a world of crumbling studio systems, was The Conqueror viewed as a warning to other studios that they could be one bad film away from financial ruin?
It’s kind of a misnomer because RKO was in financial decline for years. Howard Hughes took it over in 1948 and ran it into the ground with terrible, expensive choices. When he sold it in 1955, all the studio had left was The Conqueror. They released it but failed to break even.


4-1956 also saw the release of one of the best movies ever made, The Searchers, which also starred John Wayne. How did The Conqueror not hurt John Wayne’s overall popularity?

Wayne said later on that he regretted taking the role and that he wasn’t suited for it. Critics were hard on it, but he followed it up with The Searchers, Rio Bravo, and a couple other hits, so it really fell by the wayside. In those days, most actors did two or three movies each year.

5- I personally have read in other books, John Wayne himself wasn’t happy during production. Was anyone on set glad to be making the film, or was it a pretty miserable shoot for all?
It was a miserable shoot all around. Susan Hayward was drinking and trying to allegedly have an affair with John Wayne. Second-time director Dick Powell was so in over his head, he wasn’t sleeping. Harsh weather conditions in Utah were harming the cast and crew. It was rough all around.

6-The Conqueror was a flop at the time of release and is still considered a flop today, for even someone like myself who hasn’t seen anything but trailer can agree on this. What would you cite as the reasons why the film has maintained it’s awful reputation?
It’s awful in many ways, but the miscast of John Wayne as Ghengis Khan is so startling, it’s hard to comprehend. But the performances are all very hammy, the story is lacklustre, and one-quarter of the movie is very sexist dance numbers that have nothing to do with the story. I will say, the production value is better than most things made today.

7-Branching off the previous question, The Conqueror has rarely aired on tv and is difficult to find on dvd and streaming platforms, why should movie fans still watch this flop of a film, even if it’s only to say, “I’ve seen it once”!
If you are a John Wayne fan, you can’t claim fandom unless you’ve seen this one. It also has so much lore around it, that it’s simply one of those bucket list watches that will not disappoint. 

8-The Conqueror is not only known for its content, but also for its filming location at nuclear test sites in Utah; was anyone aware at the time of filming how dangerous the location was?
The location scouts did bring this to attention to the producers who deemed it safe. The cast and crew got worried when they arrived and heard this from the locals, but ultimately, Howard Hughes called up the Atomic Energy Commission and was assured there would be no problems. Any link or danger from radiation was not known for at least a decade after. 

9-Unfortunately for most of the cast and crew, many people, including John Wayne himself (and his son Michael, a producer on the film), died from cancer due to the radiation present at the filming site; When did this link of cancer and location become apparent?
Dick Powell, the director, died from cancer in 1961, while co-star Pedro Armendariz died shortly after that from suicide after learning his cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that cast and crewmembers began dropping like flies. Wayne beat cancer in the mid-1960s, but ultimately succumbed to it in 1979. It was in that moment downwinders who were fighting for government aid finally brought their case to the US Senate. A journalist happened to see a connection between the filming location, the downwinder plight, and John Wayne’s death that year. He published an article that inspired many similar stories ever since. 

10- Last question: What overall lessons can be learned from The Conqueror and how can biopics today strive not to make the same mistakes?
This movie was made with no intent to get facts rights. The screenwriter even said he did no research and didn’t know who Ghengis Khan was before he took a meeting with Hughes. It was made for money and entertainment with no regard for authenticity. The production was very rushed too. So it was made with no care. I think a few Khan biopics have been made since. They were more cautious and careful, however, this film, The Conqueror, lives on because of how bad it is.

Bonus question: What are your favourite John Wayne films? 

I tend to gravitate to his stuff in the later 1950s and early 1960s, particularly Rio Bravo (his best and most entertaining western) and the riveting The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Again, Killing John Wayne: The Making of the Conqueror by Ryan Uytdewilligen is available online: Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Thanks so much to Ryan for answering the Questions and I’m very excited to read the book!!!You can learn more about Ryan by visiting his website HERE

Meet me in Monaco 5th Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon

For the Grace Kelly Blogathon this year, I wanted to do something a bit special and review a recently published novel involving her called Meet me in Monaco by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb.

Meet Me In Monaco

I was a bit skeptical about reading the book, as I didn’t particularly enjoy Ms. Gaynor’s novel, The Girl from the Savoy but there was something that magnetized me into reading this novel: The presence of Grace Kelly.

Meet me in Monaco is set against the 1950s French Riviera. Our main character Sophie is a perfumer who learned the trade from her beloved, but deceased father, while the leading man is James (Jim) Henderson, a British photographer who is re-adjusting to life after WWII. It’s a chance first meeting for Sophie and James when Grace Kelly hides in Sophie’s shop trying to evade the paparazzi- and it sets off a chain of events that connect these three characters for over 30 years. 

The narrative in the book begins during the 1955 Cannes Film Festival with the main portion taking place during 1956 with Grace’s courtship and wedding to Prince Rainier. Grace fans are in for a real treat as several things are mentioned that her fans will get a kick out of: her dog Oliver (a gift from Mr Cary Grant!), her taste in French perfume, the first meeting of Rainier, and even the voyage to Monaco. However, readers will also come to love the fictional characters in this novel that really drive the romance plot. James to me, in my view of fictional characters, is the dream guy- a British photographer who’s a romantic at heart. He’s a WWII vet and there’s a bit of a backstory with that along with his ex-wife, Marjorie, and his daughter whom he adores (Her name is Emily- so personally, that was awesome). Sophie was also a likable character and someone you can identify with; I just wish she would have been more courageous at making some business decisions. However, what I enjoyed most about her was that she always kept her father’s memory alive- it was sweet that whenever she was down, she always remembered his advice.

What makes this book believable is the focus is not on Grace Kelly. We are not getting the inside details of her voyage to Monaco or her wedding plans, rather we are hearing about it through the perspective of the main characters. This style of writing makes Grace’s presence very real. Because she only pops up in person about 4 times, the reader becomes just as excited to see her as James and Sophie do. Its really fun too because there are some passages that appear in letter or telegram style. There’s even a few magazine and newpaper sections written in the book, and that makes it really authentic.

SLIGHT SPOILER: The one problem I have with the novel is the 26 year time jump. There are so many questions that never get answered because of this, and it makes the ultimate ending feel short changed.

Meet me in Monaco was given a bunch of accolades this year with a reviewer calling it a “French bon-bon of a book”. I can’t say I argue and even if your not into “lite” historical fiction books, you can appreciate the Grace Kelly connection. It’s  a very breezy read and just an overall cute book!

Click here to go to the Author’s website and learn more about the book!

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Be sure to check out my co-hosts pages of Day 2 and Day 3 and check out Day 1 of the Grace Kelly Blogathon! I want to thank Ginnie for hosting and coming up with this marvelous event! I am always happy to be invited to co-host with you! To Samantha- It was so fun joining you this year for this event! I love being part of this with you two fabulous ladies and I say it every year, but I truly believe Grace Kelly would be flattered with all of the love!!

And to all my readers and fellow writers- Thanks again so much for participating. Without the audience there is no reason for me to write- you all keep me going!!!

Book Review: Merton of the Movies

Here on The Flapper Dame, I’m always open to try something new, and today it’s fun to say my first movie related book review for my site is Merton of the Movies!

(LARB BOOKS)

Written by Harry Leon Wilson, Merton of the Movies was first published 100 years ago in 1919 in the Saturday Evening Post. It was published in book form in 1922. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of its initial publication, LARB books is republishing the classic in a new edition that will feature an introduction by Tom Lutz and forward by Mitra Jouhari. The edition will be released By LARB books on November 19, 2019.

After reading the book, I am surprised the film adaptations have not been well known to the general public, as the plot has the making of a bon fide hit. The book has been adapted in radio, film, as a play, and as a musical. The movie versions were made in 1924 as a silent that has been lost, in 1932 under the title, Make me a Star, and in 1947 under its original name with Red Skelton in the lead.

Merton of the Movies (1947 film).jpg
1947 release poster (wikipedia)

The story of Merton at the Movies is the template for the “Hollywood Story” trope. In the beginning, Merton Gill of Simsbury, Illinois, is just a sales clerk for Gashwiler’s general store. But Merton has a love affair with all things related to Hollywood and the movies. He decides to take it one step further by taking acting lessons and setting out for Hollywood. What happens next is what all Hollywood newbies discover: The truth of the glamourous facade (for starters, Merton’s favorite actress, Beulah Baxter of the Perils of Pauline serials, has actually been married three times and does not do her own stunts!!!).

After failing auditions and interviews, Merton’s real big break takes off with a chance encounter with Flips Montague (real name: Sarah Nevada Montague) – a comedienne and stunts woman who has been in showbiz her entire life. She helps Merton financially and sets him up with her director friend Jeff Baird. From there, Merton (with a new alter-ego of Clifford Armytage) gets his big break through Baird and even falls in love with Flips.

The humor of all this and throughout the book is Merton wants to do drama and is a straight arrow in personality, but is forced into comedies for which he sees no humor in.

What I admired about this novel is the story, as its Hollywood behind the scenes. For a film industry so young at the time of publication, it really shows the beginnings of the craziness that would be more widely exposed in films such as Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, and The Barefoot Contessa. I am amused by fictional Hollywood characters in works such this and the act of trying to figure out who their real life counterparts are.  I also really adored the character of Flips. She’s sassy and funny- maybe even more enjoyable than Merton in my opinion!

The element I disliked was the excess of narration. It dragged the story down, and I prefer to read more about the interactions of characters. It could have been at least 50 pages less had the narration not went on and on. Moreover, I couldn’t completely get into the humor- perhaps the author’s style isn’t something that personally clicks with me, but then again, I don’t have a typical sense of humor (I have been told I’ve got a dry sense of humor)

Overall, I was very humbled to be asked to write a review for the re-release and thank Alice and the team at LARB books for reaching out to me and sending me an e-copy of the book to review.

If you get a chance to read the book, whether you buy the upcoming copy or can get a hold of an older copy, it’s well worth it and a fascinating look at early 1920’s silent era Hollywood.

*ALL OPINIONS AND THOUGHTS ARE MY OWN. I was given an advanced e-copy to read curtsy of LARB books. Find out more about the re-release copy here.